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3 Steps to Mastering Fly Selection

The Framework To Choosing the Right Flies

Part 2 of 5 of Fly Selection Mastery Series

How to Master Fly Selection On and Off the River

Learning fly selection is more than just choosing the right fly on the river. The journey to success begins before you even get on the river and requires planning, learning and practice. We’re going to teach you the three steps to helping you master fly selection. If you learn these three steps and apply the knowledge and expertise from these steps, you will catch more fish every time you get on the river.

This article, especially if you’re new to fly fishing may overwhelm you.  Don’t worry, each topic we cover here is going to be covered in more detail and I promise it will make more sense as you progress through the free series on mastering fly selection.  For now, let this article serve as your guide to what and where you need to focus your time around to master fly selection.


Learn Your Bugs & Behavior

Where All Fly Selection Masters Begin

The first step to any mastery of a skill is education, and in particular, memorization.  In order to choose the right flies, you have to know what your fishing flies imitate.  You need to memorize the bugs that trout eat including their seasonal and daily behavior.  This is commonly referred to in the fly fishing world as Fly Fishing Entomology and we’ve written an entire 8-part course on it because of it’s importance to fly selection.  In order to master your entomology, you’ll need to learn these major areas:

Learn the 13 Categories of Insects on the Trout Menu

There are 13 major categories (orders) of insects that trout eat throughout the year anywhere in the world. In addition to the 13 categories, there are up to 4 stages of each insect category that you will need to know. Lastly, for a few of the categories such as mayflies and stoneflies, it’s very helpful to understand the major species that are found in rivers and their behaviors.

These 13 categories don’t change and the majority of them exist on every river. Their importance to trout vary based on month and seasons which are driven by tempratures, streamflows and a variety of other factors. With that said, a basic memorized knowledge of the 13 categories, stages, size ranges, color options and seasonal activities will help you understand a great deal about what you can expect to see on any river you fish at any given time.

Learn the Insects Seasonal and Daily Behaviors

Once you know about all the bugs you can expect to see, you must memorize when each category and stage is active in the river.  We’re talking about learning when insects hatch during what seasons or months, and even down to the behavior of when they hatch during the time of day.  Some insects or morning bugs and some are more of the late night party type.  

Stoneflies for example, have up to a three year lifecycle as a nymph so they are always in the water as nymphs, which is why flies like a prince nymph and pat’s rubberleg seem to catch so many fish so consistently. However, during the late spring and early summer for most species of stoneflies, they hatch, but they don’t emerge on the water so only the nymph and the adult (dry) version of the insect matters to feeding trout. You can expect to see stoneflies hatch all day long when the hatch and adults are active.

Don’t worry if you just got a little overwhelmed by all that, this is the often the most difficult part of fly selection. We will spend an entire article providing a list where you can memorize these sorts of insects, stages and behaviors to help you figure out the right fly on the river.

Learn this knowledge and you’ll be able to equip yourself with the right flies on the river during any time of the year.

Understanding What the Fly Patterns Imitates

If you don’t know what a stonefly nymph looks like in your box, but you know everything about stonefly nymphs, then it doesn’t really help you does it? You have to also learn your fly patterns and what they imitate.

By far, the most confusing part of understanding the patterns as they relate to insects is that it is not a 1 to 1 comparison. A hares ear nymph will imitate a caddis nymph, stonefly nymph, mayfly nymph and half a dozen other food sources in the river. So what’s a hares ear nymph imitate? Easy answer is everything because it is a search pattern. All fly patterns can be broken into four categories of fly pattern imitations:

  • Search Patterns –  imitate a wide variety of insects
  • Attractor Patterns –  imitate nothing and attract everything
  • Impressionistic Patterns – imitate a few insects closely
  • Imitative Patterns – imitate a specific insect accurately

We did an entire article with examples and descriptions of these to teach you about the four kinds of fishing flies, which you can read here.

For now, just know that if you can learn you bugs, their behaviors and how to match them to something in your box, you are well on your way to mastering fly selection.  This is 90% of the knowledge needed, but only 30% of the process needed to master choosing the right fly.


Come Prepared to The River

You Need The Right Selection of Flies

This part is essential to your success.  If you know PMD mayflies are going to be hatching on the river and you get to the river only to pat yourself on the back because indeed, the PMD’s (pale morning duns) are hatching, but then you go to your fly box and don’t have a PMD in your box, you’re the smartest idiot on the river.

You have to be prepared to apply your knowledge on the river.  In order to be prepared, you have to be stocked up on the right flies.  This is where you either learn how to tie flies, or learn how to buy affordable flies.  This doesn’t mean you have to carry every fly imaginable on the river, but it does mean you need to apply your seasonal knowledge and knowledge of the rivers and regions you will be fishing and stock the right sizes and colors of the insects you expect to encounter.  

We sell flies that are affordable and high quality, but we’re not here to just sell you flies, we’re much more interested in being helpful and instrumental to your fly fishing success.  We’re only writing this here because we want to be transparent about this point.  It’s really important you have the right flies in your box, we’re not just saying that to sell you, but instead telling you this so you can be successful on the water.

As you can see, in order to have the right flies, you need knowledge of what “should” be happening on the river.  I like to stock my box with about 50% flies that should be hatching or active in the river for that time of year, and then the other 50% are those all around confidence flies that seem to pretty much work everywhere.  This helps me be prepared and only change out half or less of my fly box on a month to month or river to river basis.  If you like a lot of flies, just have a confidence box stocked that you always have, then bring a specialty box that fits that river or season and you should be able to cover yourself well.

In our next article, you’re going to learn about all the insect categories, seasons and info needed to stock up your box, so for now just make sure you keep this in your brain.

If You Don’t Have the Right Flies in Your Box You Can’t Select The Right Fly Regardless Of Your Knowledge.

Become a Master Observer 

Apply Your Knowledge and Guess Right Faster

Once you have the knowledge of insects, their seasonal and regional behavior and come prepared with the right flies in your box on the river, then you are ready to make the most important steps in masterful fly selection.  I feel like this is where everyone gets it wrong.  Most anglers get on the river, get so excited to fish that they rig up at the car with whatever worked last time or whatever the fishing reports said should be working.  This is silly, especially if you’ve gone through all the hard work of learning you bugs and preparing your boxes only to whimsically throw on whatever someone else told you to do.

The purpose of mastering fly selection is to become self-sufficient in learning to select the right fly for your own situation. Let me share a quick story about why fishing reports and past experiences are often not worth the time.

Importance of Learning Fly Selection Yourself

I was fishing the upper south platte, a place I fish often being a Colorado native, and I fish this place often enough to have confidence flies that usually work for the river without even paying attention to my surroundings.  On this particular day, the river was just the way it normally is, without any real issues and it should have fished great.  However, after 5 or 6 changes of the fly I couldn’t figure out what they were eating.

Taking a step back, I got out my bug seine from my entomology course, and seined the water to see what was active under the water because I saw no surface activity of any kind.  My buddies decided to go fish downstream of me and I decided to head upstream in hopes we’d find a pattern on the fish.  The seines’ result came up with nothing.  Which actually, told me alot.  It told me nothing was really moving in the river right now and if I was going to get fish, I’d need to attract them with something appetizing.  A couple attractor patterns were used, an egg pattern and a rainbow warrior.  Within minutes, I was finding fish.  the day ended with over 20 to the net and I met my buddies back at the car to ask how they did.

They fished about 1/4 mile below me and said they did great too.  This was great news and I assumed they fished what I fished, but when I asked, they told me ant patterns.  They were catching them on dries as I dredged the deep with eggs and both worked, but nothing in between.  If we had gone home that day and both filled out fishing reports, we’d have some pretty different results wouldn’t we?  This is because fishing reports are largely anecdotes from fishing guides.  Nothing wrong with that except that they aren’t you and the reports are possibly out of date as soon as they are written.  

If you’re truly going to become a better angler, you have to learn the skills needed to be self-sufficient on the river so you can make decisions that work for your adventure on the water, not someone else’s. 

Hope you remember that story, because it’s often the case for a lot of anglers who choose to rely on outside knowledge instead of the information that is available to them on the river in the present.  Learn to get to the river, set your phone time for even just 3 minutes, take a deep breath and look around you, you will see several clues to choosing the right fly. 

It could be a fish rising, telling you dry flies may be in play, or caddis in the trees which bring caddis nymphs, emergers and dries in as options, or maybe nothing is happening which tells you the action may be under the water, not above.  All of these are possibilities and as you become a master observer, something we’ll cover in some future articles, you’ll find the clues you need to bring your entomology knowledge and fly preparedness together for success.  

You Have Your Roadmap – What’s Next?

Now that you’ve learned the areas of focus and how to become a master at fly selection, it’s time to dive into the details and really do our best to teach you how to catch more fish. The first step is learning your insects.  Look for our article next week in our email series.

If You’re Already on Our Fly Selection Series Emails….

Then you’re on the right track for improving your fly selection skills. Go ahead and read the next article below. (We’ll email it to you as well or you can read it now if you have time)

Read The Master Bug Guide

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